Al Salam Community School: For the People

Al Salam Community school will open in September of this year. The new school already has more than 500 students committed to its opening, and is ambitiously targeting the same again. We met with Sue Johnston, Al Salam's founder, and Taher Gharib, its CEO, to discuss why and how the school is going to get there.
Al Salam Community School: For the People
By David Westley
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With barely four months to the opening of Al Salam Community School, a seismic event for all those involved, met Sue Johnston, the founder of Al Salam Private School, and Taher Gharib, its CEO, to discuss plans that are being revealed for the first time.

Both "Mrs Sue", as Mrs Johnston is called within the school, and Mr Gharib, are 'beyond excited' about their plans for the new school, and indeed Al Salam Private School, once it returns to being primary only. Both have that light in their eyes that comes at the very beginning of something new, when everything is a possibility. The two, and indeed the wider community at Al Salam, are not missing the opportunities this 'once in a generation opportunity' is presenting either. Our hour long conversation reveals plans that are both hugely thoughtful, and highly innovative. 

But first, let's look at the people to whom we're speaking. To understand Al Salam is really to understand the people who drive it. This is a family business, or more accurately, a family passion. The whole family are involved in making decisions, but today we meet Mrs Johnston, and one of her sons (a son,"except when he is at school"). The duo are a compelling mix of modesty and ambition. Both want to achieve fantastic things, but equally, repeatedly stress that none of this is for them. Al Salam is for the people, for the community it serves.

Mr Gharib joined Al Salam Private School in 2011, but not in a leadership position. After completing his undergraduate degree in Neuroscience and Behaviour from Canada and MSc in Developmental Neuroscience from Kings College London, he started teaching at the school whilst studying for a M.Ed in Educational Leadership from Zayed University. In time he rose to become the Deputy Principal. He now oversees general management and development of Al Salam School as Director.

Today Mrs. Sue Johnston is one of the most respected names in the UAE education sector. However, this is a long way from an unassuming start, over 35 years ago, with a small nursery in Deira. Right now Al Salam offers an education to 1 200 students from Nursery to Year 12. In September, it will open another 2,500 capacity new school, Al Salam Community. There may only be a 6km distance to the new school, but no one should be in any doubt that the journey has been a long one.  And it still is as Mrs Sue shows no signs of tiring. The former teacher, head mistress, entrepreneur and now CEO says the school is her baby, and she will continue to be involved until her "very last breath... "

Al Salam Private School reflects its leaders. It has strength and depth that belie the way it looks from the outside. It is tiny compared to the ultra modern spaceships that have landed in Dubai recent years, and yet every centimetre is attributed for, every inch serves a purpose. That it achieves so much, in such a small space, is a testament to those involved in its mission - its educators, its senior leaders, and its owners... So we began our interview asking whether standalone, family schools can still serve a purpose in today's ultra-modern, multi-billion dirham Dubai education industry...

Al Salam is a family school - very unusual today in Dubai which seems intent on mergers and larger groups of schools. Do you think this type of ownership can continue to exist?

SJ: I think community, family schools are needed more than ever. What we do is very much join the school with the community. Our office is in the school. We see everything, hear everything that is happening. When we walk in parents, teachers, staff come up and talk to us. We are very involved with the world outside the gates, and, in fact, what we very much try and do is blur the distinction between inside the school and outside of it. We want the community to come in, and we want the school to be outward looking.

TG: I think that connection is what is lost in larger schools. I want to stress I do not think there is a single right way of doing things, but I certainly think with a family run school like Al Salam there is an authenticity to it that bigger, commercial groups cannot achieve. Our interests and the schools interests are very aligned. A school group cannot hope to have the kinds of connections that we do, simply because the people that make the decisions will often not have anything to do with the school itself. They won't be located in the building - in the case of some international groups, maybe not even in the same country.

As a school it is only very recently we have had to impose longer-term financial management and planning. Yes, we have always had goals, and objectives, but these were based on saving sufficient money to achieve something we wanted to build - a new floor, or library for example. They weren’t profitability or margin goals, based on an acceptable return to shareholders. I am not saying to do that is in any way wrong - far from it, I am just emphasising the point that our goals have always been something concrete, and needs based.

Will having a new school change this. Certainly it will put pressure on finances? Will parents see an increase in fees?

TG: Fees will remain the same for all parents who transfer across to the new school, because they will have had no choice in the move. And their fees will remain locked into current fee levels throughout their time at the school - subject to standard KHDA increases.

For the primary, it is still under discussion whether we increase fees next year based on the new KHDA guidelines. We continued to increase staff salaries despite the fee freeze last year. The fee increase option for 2019-20 would help to at least marginally support us against rising overall costs.

What about students coming in new, for the first time to the new Community school. What will fees look like?

SJ: They are not hugely different… Around 20% higher. We still want this to be a school that is highly affordable. Our belief has always been that everyone should be able to afford a good education.

Your fees are affordable in Dubai terms, but of course many parents still cannot afford them… Do you offer scholarships and bursaries?

SJ: Yes, we have many students on a scholarship here… and we continue to look for ways to expand this provision.

What was the reason behind the new school?

TG: It was never our intention to expand – especially on an external plot somewhere else. We had looked at the surrounding area of this [Al Salam Private] school. Just outside there is a sand plot we thought about trying to acquire for a sports field – a football pitch actually. But fundamentally we do not have a business model that is built on building something profitable, and then cloning it everywhere.

For us, no matter how good we think the school is, it is never enough. There is a satisfaction that is almost never achievable because you want everything to be working well, to be happy for every child in terms of what they experience. I do not think we reached that point, even now.

Yes, we are delivering a good quality education, but not to the point we can say, "job done, let’s go and build another school and recreate this exact same thing elsewhere".

The only reason that we have moved to launch a new school is because we recognize that there is no way to further develop our secondary here – both in terms of numbers, and in terms of what we can offer. We cannot even offer the admissions places we need to do for the primary.

SJ: For the last three years we have not even been able to absorb siblings into the primary. It is very difficult for us to say no to parents, who may have three children already in the school, and have a fourth one coming...

So, fundamentally, the reason for the second school is actually to be able to complete the mission of the first school?

TG: Yes, we do not, or did not, have a very big understanding of investor models, or investing in new schools. We have traditionally been very internal looking at what our school needed at any one time. But working with some good partners created some visibility on the bigger possibilities and opportunities. When they asked “What about a new campus?”, my immediate suggestion was, well, if we do do that, the secondary has to move there.

The original intention for this school was as a primary school, and when it becomes, again, a primary only school it will be able to do so much more. If I am honest, I am almost as excited for Al Salam Private School as I am for the new one, because I cannot wait to see the opportunities for primary be completely fleshed out and provisioned for, using this building in its entirety and as intended. To get that focus here, to re-purpose everything in this building to be pure FS and primary, is enormously exciting.

So what will see at Salam Community School that we would not at Salam Private School?

TG: The new school allows us for the first time to place a focus on arts and sports, in a way that we have not been able to do in Al Salam Private School – there has just not been the space. The reason why our senior school here has been limited in terms of provision - academically - has simply been because of the space available – now we can address that.

Space means we can take a holistic view in terms of the programme we offer, and look to really develop an all rounded education. So, yes, we are going to increase the number of subjects we offer, but now we can give importance and dedicated space for art, performing arts, sport and so on.

We are also going to try and bring industry expertise into the school. One of the ideas we have is to offer some of the space we have to entrepreneurs. We would offer them the desks, and space they need – for free – but they pay us back with their time.

These men and women are some of the most passionate people around their industries that you will find – whether they are engineers, scientists, or creatives. If we have these guys ‘in-house’, we do not need internships! We have the resource sitting right next to us for our students to collaborate with. There is no better way for our students to really see applied learning.

As I said, it is still at the conceptual stage, but it's one of the ideas we have had I want to make happen.

In terms of expertise, do you have the key bit of the puzzle, the staff in place?

SJ: That is what we are working on at the moment, the next two weeks are full of interviews. We are not just recruiting for the new school, but also for the primary – we have created positions here too. And we’re recruiting across the board – from teaching to admissions.

As a family business, it is very important that we meet everyone who comes into the school.

TG: There needs to be a good match, they need to fit and believe in what we are doing here.

SJ: Share our passion!

How many additional staff are being recruited at the Primary? How many for the first year of the Community school? (What will that grow to?)

At the moment we expect to hire at least 27 new staff members as part of the teaching team. This number excludes support staff and new members of the inclusion team. For the Community School we are projecting a team of almost 100 in the first year. At capacity this number is expected to approach 200.

So who will lead both schools – has that been decided?

Yes, the former principal of Al Salam Private School, Mr Kausor Amin Ali, will become the principal of Al Salam Community. The position has already been approved by the KHDA. And we have the new head of Al Salam Private, Craig Dyche-Nichols …., and again his position has been approved by the regulator – since February.

Mr Craig has been with us since November, so our community has had time to absorb the change, a transition period between Mr Craig and Mr Kausor. They are satisfied with the leadership change, with the changes they have already seen being put in place with the new school coming.

We are hoping to announce all the new internal restructures shortly, and get everyone excited for the year ahead!

How many students do you have for the new school so far?

SJ: So we have about 450 students who will be moving across, and we have since the announcement signed up another 100. We will be doing a lot of work on admission during the holiday.

What is your target for launch in terms of student numbers for the new school, as well as growth for Al Salam Private School as a primary?

Certainly we expect the primary to grow in student numbers as the school converts to being primary only. The foundation stage will have 2-3 more form entries, and we will have approximately one extra form entry for each year in KS1 and KS2. However, there will be fewer classes overall within the school and are looking forward to operating at a more comfortable overall student number. We are excited to launch some innovative ideas and repurposing of spaces to suit a richer primary experience.

For the secondary we are aiming for around 1,000 students.

We do not expect the secondary to grow as fast as the primary, and currently the aim is for an additional two form entries at each level.

In the current school senior school provision has been very restricted, and we are really keen to change this. But that can, obviously, only come from demand from students.

In UK schools, everyone expects to finish at Year 13, but a lot of our students see other opportunities that they can very easily pick up on after 12 years of school. Very few of their parents would have actually gone and done 13 years of schools themselves, so for them it is not an obvious thing to do or encourage.

SJ:  Our students have traditionally not gone to the likes of the UK where you need A' Levels to enter university, but instead gone to places where 12 years is the norm and sufficient – such as the UAE. So, naturally, we stopped at AS Level. However, I have always wanted to offer education all the way through to Year 13 and this is our first year of doing that. I was determined we introduce A' Levels – even if we only had just one student.

How many A' Level students did you have for the first year?

SJ: We actually have 14 students – a lot more than I originally predicted…

For the new school we will obviously need to further increase this number, but we also know we will face an initial challenge in that there is more resistance in changing schools the older students get. They are already settled, at a very important time in their school career.

So, practically, what additional subjects will become available for students as they move to secondary at Al Salam Community?

We are looking at at least 4 additional GCSE options including Computer Science, Art and Design, Psychology and Global Perspectives. This will bring our number to a total of 23 subject options additional to the required subjects (Maths and English). We are very keen to grow our provision for the arts and PE and may offer more based on demand in the first year.

We aim to grow our total AS subject options to 16 or 17 which will include six new options  - English Literature, Computer Science, French, Arabic (as a second language), Sociology, and Media Studies.

Finally, this has been our first year of A levels, and we have catered specifically to the demand from students coming from their AS options. So far demand has been for maths, the sciences and business / commerce subjects. As students ask for greater diversity, so we will begin to introduce a greater range of subjects.

One very important change for Al Salam is that you have a new long-term partner with the Bin Haider group… [Bin Haider Education has built Al Salam Community School. Al Salam will then rent the school from Bin Haider Education].

TG: It has been refreshing in that I had not expected the relationship to be so supportive. We never had any intention to dilute the ownership of our school, that was off limits. And as a company we have never had any debt. We don’t have any experience of it, and we do not want to have. The 80 million - 100 million AED we would have needed to borrow to build the school would not have been an area of comfort for us.

Finding a partner that would come in and build the school for us on the basis of tenant and land owner, however, is something we were OK with – it was easy to digest for us.

SJ: We have been involved in the design from A-Z. The Bin Haider group has built the school, and owns the building, but in terms of what it is, it is very much our building, our baby, our design. Everything we have wanted and asked for – except one thing… they have delivered: Each classroom with its own outside area; each classroom with its own toilet; seven science labs; the swimming pool; the facilities… They have been marvellous actually.

They will be a long-term partner, so to share the same values is obviously very important?

SJ: They are very clearly almost as passionate about the new school building as we are – very excited about it. As far as I understand it is going to be a flagship school for them, in a new unit they have set up – Bin Haider Education.

How important are the facilities to a school?

TG: Important, but it is really what is on the inside, and who is directing the school, that matters.

We are already getting the outcomes our children need in order to move onto the next stage of their lives [Al Salam records some of the best GCSE and AS Level results in the UAE]. But we cannot do everything here. We want children to be equipped with everything that they need to move onto the next stage, and facilities certainly matter for that.

That is what we are excited about, both in the primary where there are gaps in creating the holistic experience we have always aimed for, and even more so at at  secondary where we hope to become competitive in terms of PE, fitness, the arts, drama – things we had had real limitations in terms of space, and now where we will be able to give a lot more focus.

Ultimately it is though ‘the inside’ matters most; the DNA of the school in what we do and how; but there is also no doubt facilities give you more opportunity to express and realize that…

So tell us about the facilities. The Heritage Centre is particularly exciting?

SJ: The UAE is our home. A lot of the children here, if you ask them, “Where are you from?”, they will say Dubai or the UAE – even if, in terms of passport, they are not. This is where they were born, this is where they have grown up. So the Heritage Centre represents our desire to link these students into the UAE, so they can understand more than just what is written in the books, and in the curriculum. 

TG: On the first floor there is a space that was originally provisioned for as a library, and it will still contain elements of that in terms of being able to access knowledge and information, but there is also an experiential aspect to it, in terms of what is happening in the UAE. Students coming in will be able to tap into knowledge, experience, resources, which are all working together to promote a wider experience of culture and heritage.

We didn’t want there to just be patches on the wall through the school promoting isolated elements of the heritage of the country. The Heritage Centre aims to make the past, present and future meaningful and give it context. It is going to be the heart of the school, where students can come back and re-integrate with one another, connect again with one another, in a space that keeps reminding us where we are in the world, in a country that itself is on a continuum, on a journey.

Can you 'walk us through it'?

TG: So, it begins with a very large indoor space, around 250 square metres which is the knowledge centre. Directly across on the other side of the corridor, there are prayer spaces, which, we feel, you cannot detach from culture. Obviously, Al Salam is not a school for Muslims, we are very much a diverse school, but faith is obviously very connected to who we are.

You go further down the corridor, there’s around 125 square metres of outdoor space which will be another hub where students can come together to connect. None of the areas are overly designed – this is not about the design for design’s sake, it is about adding value to the experience we are creating – creating hubs whose content which will be implicitly and explicitly guided by the way the space has been designed.

There is one space which is like a 'speaker’s corner'. We want our students to be able to feel empowered to express their ideas. We also want to invite in, and develop, poets. Poetry is a very big thing within the Arabic community, and a lot of young Emiratis are really embracing this side of their heritage. We would like them to come in and tell their stories, through their poetry. We do not want our students to just respect the culture, but be inspired by it, as a baton that needs to be carried forward.

We do not want to cut off our roots, we want to grow the tree further up. To do that we need to be aware of what is already in the ground, the value and vibrancy of life our roots have created, the personality they have shaped. We are increasingly detached from culture, and from any kind of tradition. Tradition is increasingly being looked at in a negative sense, that we need to move away from it and move towards what’s new and therefore ‘better”. And yet, tradition is where we come from – and we need to always be reminded of that.

So when you talk about heritage and culture, are you simply referring to Emirati heritage, or a more inclusive heritage and culture, that recognizes the role that others have brought?

That’s a really good point, and I am glad you asked. We have to look at the impact of the international community to where the country has come. You cannot detach that contribution.

Let's truly respect what the UAE has achieved. The country is managing to maintain a very strong cultural identity, in the face of massive globalization that is impacting every part of our lives. You do not see this as well maintained in other places. At the same time, there is a lot of effort made by the leadership of the country to make everybody proud of it, to ensure that everybody feels welcome, and that everyone feels like they are making a contribution to the progress of the emirates.

You say the school is spiritual, rather than a Muslim one. Would you make your prayer rooms multi-faith?

SJ: It’s a good question, we have always made all of our students feel very welcome wherever they come from, but the reality is 98% of our students are Muslim, so that is where we have focused. In Islam there are also obligatory prayers five times a day.

TG: I think the wider question is how do we cultivate spirituality in children of all faiths? That is something we are committed to.

It is also a challenge because it is often difficult to disconnect spirituality from the religion that is connected to it, but we achieve it through the common values we all share, that all faiths are committed to. There is no challenge in creating a common purpose around behaviours we all recognise would draw us closer to our creator. This like charity… We try not to secularise these kinds of activities. These common values are something to keep in mind and be aware of.

Charity it not just about doing good for others, as a favour for others, it is doing a good for yourself. Through being aware of the needs of others, your needs are being fulfilled through that act of giving. These are the kinds of spiritual elements we are keen to maintain, without making it a religious of faith-based school.

SJ: We have a wonderful initiative here, established many years ago by the students, called HUGS – Help Us Give Support – and it is very active, and brings in the community for various programs outside school hours. We open our doors on Saturday for example, to 150 Chinese people who come in to learn Arabic.

Your motto is ‘ Every Child is Special’, that is much more of a challenge for schools that are affordable – you have considerably less resource for individual attention. How do you make the ethos real, especially as you begin your move to a bigger school?

SJ: You just have to believe it, and act on it.

TG: This is something we are very aware of, it is clearly at risk of being diluted, and that is why we are thinking about it, planning for it at a very early stage. It starts for us from being involved with every person who comes into the school. This is very time consuming, but it is the only way to communicate what it means to come into this school. To be able to tell them "I believe in you, not only as someone who can deliver an effective education, but also a human being that cares enough to support each child, and take them as far as their abilities allow". Interviewing every candidate may sound inefficient, but it is the most efficient way to ensure we continue with this culture.

We want compassionate human beings.

So our last question is for you Mrs Johnston. You stepped down as Principal in 2015, and you are clearly now surrounded by a strong leadership team. Do you see yourself stepping back further, and handing over the reins to the next generation in your family?

TG: She is never going to actually step back!

SJ: Not while there is a breath in my body! This is my baby and I am not going anywhere. Some of the parents say, oh you have the new school, we won’t see you as much… I say, ‘You will!’

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